Before I had children there was no better way to kill a Saturday afternoon than a mooch around the shops, window shopping or splurging, depending on the distance from pay day. But it wasn't until I had two babies in the depths of winter that I discovered the true value of the shopping centre.
I still fondly recall my first post baby outing to Brent Cross. Working on the basis that there is safety in numbers I went with an NCT buddy, in the hope that at least one of us would be able to work out how to unfold and fold our buggies without the assistance of the men who had chosen them and read the handbooks. In her case our hopes were in vain and we had to ram her fully extended buggy into the boot to wait till her husband came home to collapse it again.
Pushing brand new, monster buggies pushed before us, babies tucked in and asleep as we made our first foray back into the real world, finally pricking the bubble of baby incarceration. To fill my lungs with shop scented air and fill my ears with that tinkling musak, was very heaven as it meant that at last I had left my house and could speak to someone over the age of three weeks, even if was just to say thank you for my change.
From that moment onwards almost every waking hour was spent trailing around the shops, learning which changing rooms contained the least biohazards, where you could park your buggy up for a coffee without causing a traffic jam and the unforgettable lesson that if you hang one too many bags off the back of your buggy it will fall down backwards baby and all.
Any urban mum with a winter baby will understand just what a life saver the shopping centre is, in those days before your baby is old enough to drag you around indoor play areas or be parked indefinitely in front of the TV without the concern that social services might call at any moment. As parks are to summer, it's crowded aisles are to winter, a way to get out of the house, restore your sanity and spend time with your own species - the frazzled mother of preschoolers who is deaf to wails, whines and screams that could shatter the eardrums and shred the patience of other human beings in seconds.
I don't think it's stretching a point to say that in the days after the birth of son number one a shopping centre saved my life. It's just a shame that now I have four boys aged five and under we'd be as welcome at Westfield as a nasty case of swine flu.